President Barack Obama, left, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, right, chat during a dinner at the Charlottenburg palace in Berlin Wednesday, June 19, 2013. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn, pool)
Updated: July 22, 2013 6:56PM
Second-term presidents facing turmoil at home often turn overseas, looking for a chance for success or a public-relations boost. President Barack Obama took that route this week but found frustration on his policy initiatives and even signs of Obama disillusionment in Berlin.
It’s not hard to understand why Obama would seek an escape from the troubles piling up on the domestic front: the controversy over national security surveillance, scandals over the Internal Revenue Service intimidating his political opponents and the Justice Department spying on journalists, growing suspicion that the government failed to do all it could to come to the aid of terrorist-besieged Americans in Benghazi and that afterward it tried to manipulate the truth about what happened, the collapse of his gun-control legislation, his failure to persuade the voters that sequester cuts were a bad thing, the $70 million in IRS bonuses despite the sequester, even supporters of Obamacare saying it’s headed toward a “train wreck,” and his dropping poll numbers, especially among the under-30 crowd that has been a core constituency.
Whew! And all this comes only half a year after Obama’s stunning re-election victory. Scandal and confidence-crippling controversy frequently erupt during a president’s second term but rarely so soon and so often.
It’s no wonder Obama looked overseas for good news. Yet his prospects for finding some probably were never that encouraging.
Even before he left for the G-8 summit of key industrial countries in Northern Ireland, Obama found himself boxed into a corner on Syria. The evidence was finally unavoidable that dictator Bashar al-Assad had crossed Obama’s “red line” by using chemical weapons against rebels in the Syrian civil war. After resisting for two years, Obama acquiesced to calls to provide arms to the rebels. But the decision to supply only light weapons was universally criticized as too little, too late to influence events.
One G-8 summit goal was to try to persuade Russian President Vladimir Putin to alter his hard-line support of Assad. Given the Moscow strongman’s history, it was a faint hope at best, and he quickly dashed it. The signature photograph of the summit was of Obama and Putin, slouching and sullen in chairs, their body language shouting animosity and disagreement. It could have been an image of a U.S. president and a Soviet leader from the height of the Cold War.
Then it was on to Berlin, where five years ago close to a quarter of a million Germans turned out to shower Obama in adoration. But with a national security agenda not unlike that of George W. Bush’s, a record of hundreds of drone strikes and the NSA surveillance controversy, Germans seemed a lot less enthusiastic about the president, according to news accounts. This time he spoke, sweating in 90-degree heat, to an invited crowd of several thousand from behind a thick bulletproof glass wall, not the best optics. His address was so lackluster that Obama apologist Chris Matthews of MSNBC blamed the sun for fouling up use of the teleprompter. Obama’s speech called for new nuclear arms reductions with Russia, which was immediately dismissed by Putin as out of touch with the reality that others nations have the atomic bomb and need to be part of any disarmament discussion.
Obama’s European trip didn’t turn out to be much of a vacation from worry. Now he’s back, likely facing a long hot summer of continuing domestic controversy and scandal.